Sister Carmelita Kok: A one-in-a-million nurse
Integrity Icon is a global campaign by Accountability Lab that is led by citizens in search of honest government officials. It aims to generate debate on the idea of integrity and demonstrate the importance of honesty and personal responsibility. The goal is to inspire a new generation to be more effective public servants. This week Maverick Citizen profiles a group of South African 2021 finalists.
A brick thrown at her window at Fish Hoek Clinic is a memory Sister Carmelita Kok won’t forget in a hurry. On the day, the small building had been teeming with patients queuing for TB and Aids medication and mothers and children waiting for primary healthcare. They were physically distanced as it was during hard lockdown in 2020.
Fortunately, the glass didn’t shatter and nobody was hurt.
Kok (43) recalls how a disgruntled patient threw the brick. He has since apologised and she has forgiven him. Today he is one of her “favourites” — such is her empathy and compassion.
“I’ve got this one client,” she says. “We are not allowed to mention names. When Covid-19 started last year, he was at Strandfontein — the City of Cape Town erected these tents for displaced people, you know. And some of them didn’t want to live there and moved out. So this one client came to me all the way from Strandfontein. And I remember, I was working that day, and he was just very deurmekaar [confused].
“He was out of order, he was demanding to be seen right away. I was one of few staff at the clinic and there were a lot of clients. And I told him, you can see that we are busy. Please, can I give you an appointment? Or just hang on, until I see you later. But he demanded that I see him immediately. Then he actually threw a brick at my window.”
Kok is speaking to Maverick Citizen from her home in Da Gama Park, south of Cape Town, which she shares with her husband, daughter, son and two stepsons. She tested positive for Covid-19 five days earlier, but has weathered the worst symptoms.
She continues: “So I went outside and he started throwing stones. There were clients sitting outside who I had to move inside. I had to think about my colleagues, the clients, about him and myself. So I phoned law enforcement. He was using foul language and stuff, and I said, ‘You know what, this behaviour — I’m not going to tolerate it. If you want me to help you, I can help you. But this behaviour, I’m not going to tolerate it, because there are mothers and children sitting here at the clinic.’
“And then he left, and I think it was two weeks after that, he came back to the clinic. He was standing at the gate and I asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said, ‘No, sister, please…’ I said, ‘No, you’re going to apologise.’ I was very upset with him. He said ‘No, sister, I’m really sorry. I was just angry that day. And I apologise for hurting you and the other clients and all of it.’ ”
She laughs, adding: “Let me tell you, he has become one of my best clients. He actually finished his six months, because he was on TB treatment. Every time I see him — because he’s working in Fish Hoek now; he’s a vendor, he sells fruit and veggies outside our local Pick n Pay — every time he sees me he says, ‘Sister, I’m still gonna buy you that chocolate, thank you so much.’ He’s really crept into my heart.”
Kok is known to drive around Fish Hoek and the surrounding townships of Ocean View and Masiphumelele, asking after clients who have not arrived for their appointments. Many of her patients are homeless or displaced people.
“Primary healthcare is so important; not everyone can afford medical aid,” she says.
Kok relays how she became a nurse by chance. She opted for the public sector, enrolling at the former Nico Malan Nursing College (Western Cape College of Nursing) in 1996, as her parents could not afford tertiary fees. “My parents didn’t have money, but it was all part of God’s plan,” she says.
Healthcare had always been a key theme in Kok’s life. Her parents met at Cape Town’s Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, where her mother was a nurse too, and her father a clerk.
At home, Kok values family time around their dining room table.
“I remember years ago I didn’t have a dining room table,” she says. “And I told my husband, if there’s one thing I need in my house, it’s a dining room table. For us to sit and have meals together. Because these days, kids are on their phones all the time, parents are on their phones, and we do not communicate with each other. So, dinner time at my house, we sit at the table together and have our meals, talking.”
Kok is one of South Africa’s six Integrity Icons for 2021. Driven by global nonprofit organisation Accountability Lab, the campaign aims to “name and fame” civil servants who embody integrity and go beyond the call of duty in their communities. MC